JOHANNESBURG – Bafana Bafana and coach Stuart Baxter might not want to hear this, especially after their animated celebrations in Sfax, but their qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) isn’t much of a cause for celebration.
Yes, qualifying for a major tournament is a big deal, especially by a team that’s notorious with disappointing at the last hurdle of qualifiers, but this Afcon is something of a free-for-all with 24 nations set to take part in the continental showpiece in Egypt.
That’s almost half of the 51 countries who took part in the qualifiers. Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania will be making their debut in the finals while Tanzania are going there for the first time since 1980. These countries definitely benefited from the expansion and it’s them who should be jumping up and down because for too long the Afcon was an unrealistic target for them.
But thanks to the expansion, they can now call themselves one of the best countries in the continent.
For Bafana, 1996 winners and runners up in 1998, qualification alone isn’t enough. They must hold their own against the best in the continent. These qualifiers showed that they can do that, stunning Nigeria in Uyo last June. But they once again slipped into the muddy waters of uncertainty by complicating what should have been an easy qualification campaign.
These qualifiers showed the good and bad of Bafana. It showed that the team is capable of beating the best in the continent. Their statistics in the qualifiers are impressive, unbeaten in six games and having conceded only two goals - an own goal and a penalty. That’s a solid foundation to build on and should give Baxter and company confidence.
“We knew that we had to come here and play well,” Baxter said in Tunisia after the 2-1 win over Libya earned them a ticket to Egypt. “We had a game plan. It was difficult to settle on a game plan because, do you go flying to try and get the win or do you sit back? I went for a combination of both. The longer the game went on, the more confident the players became.”
The bad was that Bafana still showed vulnerability despite their dominance on paper. Failure to beat Libya at home and Seychelles away, after wiping the floor with the Islanders at FNB Stadium, showed that the problem of mental strength is still an issue.
Bafana still take minnows lightly, and then they struggle to regroup when those minnows give them a run for their money. There was a brief scare against the Mediterranean Knights on Sunday when Libya equalised from the penalty spot.
“Yeah, when they scored the penalty, I thought this isn’t going to happen,” Baxter said. “You always do that as a coach, you have those left-brain thoughts. I thought that the penalty was harsh, off course I will say that because I am the South African coach.
I thought that the players showed incredible character to come back and make it 2-1 and ride out the storm that we knew was going to come. I thought that the players were magnificent.”
Bafana Bafana players have arrived back home from Tunisia where they beat Libya to book a place at AFCON 2019 in Egypt pic.twitter.com/FGclAJxgjn— Bafana Bafana (@BafanaBafana) March 26, 2019
Bafana will need that fighting spirit to hold their own in Egypt. On April 12 they will find out who they will be grouped with. For Bafana to do well in the Afcon, they have to build on their fighting spirit and the character they showed away against Libya and Nigeria, while working on the frailties they showed at home to Libya and away to Seychelles.
The future looks bright, but the wrong turn in the road to Egypt will shut-down that light faster than the person who pulls the plug for load-shedding.